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Meet The New Boss

Man vs. Machine Politics in Brooklyn 

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM / Harper's Magazine v.309, n.1855, 1dec04

Will the people rule? . . . Is democracy possible?
-Lincoln Steffens 

In the early 1990s, when he was running for office and losing just about every year, John O'Hara was known as "Mad Dog" for his quixotic campaigns. Appropriately, his political enemies wanted the young lawyer "leashed, muzzled, and caged, if not shot," as one of them put it to me. Such was the notoriously vindictive-some would say corrupt-atmosphere of Democratic machine politics in Brooklyn. In the old days, insurgents got their legs broken by plug-uglies, or lost ferociously at the polls by the hands of repeaters. Today, the world being less simple, you go before a winking judge to get thrown off the ballot on a technicality and end up bankrupted from the court costs. The plug-uglies have law degrees.

In O'Hara's case, he was also charged with a felony for the impudence of his candidacies. He was heavily fined and, in lieu of prison, given five years' probation and fifteen hundred hours of community service, which consisted of cleaning up garbage in parks. I got to know O'Hara drinking in seedy old bars late at night. One day in 2003, I went to see him working off his garbage detail. The martyrdom of the labor seemed to please him-O'Hara envisioned himself a "political prisoner"-and for that reason he enjoyed visitors. It was April and sunny and strangely hot, and O'Hara was crouched in the grass beer-bellied and sweating as he gathered trash into big black bags. "The chain gang!" he snorted when I walked up. Then he exploded in laughter. Here he was, a felon since 1997, stripped of his law license and his livelihood (he had been a Wall Street attorney), the son of working-class Irish, the first in his family to go to college, and now his supervisor was directing him to swab the feces from the park's toilets. "Long way from Wall Street," he said, talking, as usual, out of the side of his mouth in a kind of half-baked James Cagney. Then he burst again into his red-faced, big-shouldered laugh.

The mirth arose, in part, because the corruption that had rendered O'Hara a footnote was now, in April of 2003, exploding across the front pages of New York's dailies. Most of it centered on the Brooklyn courthouse where O'Hara had been, as he described it, "fucked in the ass by a hack judge." There were charges of bribery and case-fixing, of judges paying as much as $100,000 to climb the bench, of extortion by Democratic Party bosses. One judge was caught soliciting $115,000 to fix a personal-injury suit. In the surrogate's court an estimated $8 million had disappeared from Brooklyn estates into the pockets of the party's crony lawyers. It was an embarrassing year for the borough, a throwback to the old Tammany rottenness, or, rather, evidence that Tammany had never really gone away. To top it off, that summer a Brooklyn councilman was assassinated at gunpoint by a psychotic rival, who himself was shot down in the act. The assassin was an insurgent who had been forced off the ballot one too many times and, apparently, been driven nuts by the system. He became a terrorist-the other path O'Hara sometimes pondered after too many beers.

But O'Hara believed too much in the lessons of his civics teachers; he believed in the system as the Founders established it: pluralistic, agonistic, a cacophony of voices, not guns. He wanted to run for office; the machine did what it had to do. Still, if one worked hard enough, the machine could be fought and conquered and eventually dismantled, or so O'Hara believed. Watching him clean toilets, I began to think that here was what happened when a person, alone, tried to shake up a dying democracy. In retrospect, this was naive. I had grown up in Brooklyn, lived in Brooklyn my whole life, never knowing that the machine was all around that perhaps Brooklyn was not a failure of democracy but the fate of democracy; not the anachronism but the model, and the future, even, of the nation.


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